There were seventy Swedish volunteers with lorries attending to the evacuation. For the first few weeks we worked with them as loading crews, and during that period moved so much furniture that we began to believe that the letters L.F.V. on our uniforms stood for London Furniture Volunteers and not London Fire Volunteers.
Then came the German invasion of Norway (9 April 1940). The Swedish drivers immediately left with their lorries for home. How were we to carry on? Six of us could drive, but we hadn’t a lorry between us. It was imperative that a search be started for anything that had four wheels and was capable of moving. The appliance room at the fire station offered several tempting possibilities. Apart from the Tammisaari machines, it contained three antiquated appliances from Hanko – one of which was a model T Ford -, an 1888 Merryweather “steamer” and a horse-drawn, hand-operated pump. The two latter, we were told, had done valiant work during the war; proof enough that Finland needed fire appliances. We suggested that the three Hanko appliances should be stripped of their superstructure and used as lorries. The Hanko firemen naturally raised strong objections. But there was no time for sentiment. Overnight we stripped the appliances and presented the horrified firemen with the fait accompli next morning. This was one occasion on which I was thankful I did not understand Finnish. In addition we managed to scrape up three derelict lorries, and with these six vehicles were able to carry on the good work.
Many and varied were the tasks we were called upon to perform with this ramshackle fleet. Nothing appeared to be impossible. With the aid of applied science and a few words of encouragement we even managed to load an 18ft boat on to one of the fire appliances. Admittedly it was kept there by the grace of God and the weight of two men in the bows, but all arrived safely at their destination.
On one occasion we were set to work on clearing a snowbound narrow-gauge railway which ran from the forest to the local prison. We worked, under armed guard, with some of the inmates, many of whom were Russian prisoners. Strangely enough, no one asked us what we were “in” for, but when, at mid-day, we were marched with the others to the prison canteen for a meal, we began to fear that perhaps some slight error had been made. We were relieved to find that the “term” we had to serve lasted only the duration of the meal.
In our black uniforms we had come to be known as the “Black Watch of Tammisaari.” I was not surprised, therefore, to be ordered one day to play the role of undertaker. For a hearse I had but an antiquated fire appliance. Well do I remember that March evening when I, eyes streaming not from sorrow but from intense cold, drove back with my load and deposited it on a carpet of snow in the moonlit cemetery.
We worked for six weeks on the evacuation of Hanko. The night before our return to Helsinki we gave a farewell party to the Lottas and the Fire Chief. We were sorry to have to say good-bye to our friends, for we should have to go a long way to find such kindness and hospitality again. We had worked hard admittedly, harder than most of us had thought ourselves capable, but our efforts had been adequately repaid.
The party was a great success and ended up in an air-raid shelter. The reason for this was made clear when one of our friends produced a bottle of Schnapps. The sale of alcohol in Finland is controlled by the government who, owing to a tendency of the people to get extremely drunk in times of crisis, close the shops and forbid the sale of drink during such periods. But, as the donor explained, “Finland is a dry country, but it sometimes rains.” Our friends asked us what our plans were, to which we replied that we intended to go to Norway. We had missed one war and, if we could possibly help it, we were not going to miss another. Our appliances and equipment, having narrowly escaped falling into German hands in Norway, had now reached Stockholm. From there we could drive them to Norway, but first we should have to obtain the consent of the Finnish authorities.
Back in Helsinki, it was not long before we had the necessary permission. General Sihvo, chief of Finnish Civil Defence, agreed to present the appliances to Norway as a token of friendship from Finland. The Norwegian Government thought the idea a good one, and we left almost immediately for Stockholm. Here things did not plan out as easily as we had expected. The dock which contained our pumps had been declared a military area, and no foreigner was allowed to enter without permission. Every day for three weeks we asked the Finnish Legation if the necessary permit had been granted. Each time we impressed upon them that the position in Norway was by no means improving and that of something drastic was not done soon, we should be too late for yet another war. Each time they told us that they expected the permit “any day now.” When that day eventually arrived we rushed excitedly to the dock only to find that the appliances had been sent to Finland the day before. We were assured that there was a very adequate reason for this. There was no concealing our disappointment at being unable to get to Norway, but we knew that we would be of little use without our appliances. When, a few days later, the British evacuated, we realised that we had perhaps been spared a horrible fate.
The next move was to get back to England. But how was this to be done? The Germans controlled the west from Norway to Belgium, so it was impossible to return the way we had come. Two possibilities remained open to us: by sea from the Finnish Arctic port of Petsamo or through Russia to Odessa and home via the Middle East. In either case we should have to return to Finland, and this would give us an opportunity to demonstrate our equipment to the Finns. The Helsinki Fire Brigade were in favour of our doing this, and we agreed to stay a minimum of ten days. Before leaving Stockholm we made a point of applying for Russian visas.
When we got back to Helsinki we found that the London Fire Brigade observer, who had not come with us on our abortive attempt to get to Norway, had secured himself a passage on a Finnish ship from Pestamo to England and expected to leave in a few days. There were no berths available for us, he said, but he understood from the British Legation that arrangements were being made for a special ship to fetch both us and the 150 British military volunteers who were still in Finland. We were ready to leave at three days’ notice. Several weeks passed, and there was still no sign of the ship. Then Dunkirk was evacuated, and we learnt that the ship which was to evacuate us was being used there.
By this time the Germans were in complete control of Norway and, from their bases at Kirkenes, were able to control the sailings of all ships from Petsamo. Ships were frequently stopped and any British passengers taken off and interned. Somehow, we thought, it was a risk worth taking. But we were soon disillusioned when, on making our application to the shipping company, we were told that all passenger and crew lists had to be submitted to the German Consul in Petsamo before a ship was permitted to sail. And, as we found later, no captain was prepared to risk hiding a British subject on board his ship. The Petsamo route was therefore out of the question.
There remained the other alternative – over Russia. Unfortunately this way was made impossible by a firm but polite refusal by the Russians to grant us the necessary transit visa. All our efforts to convince them that our purpose in going to Finland was purely humanitarian and not political proved to be in vain.
Cut off from east and west, we could only resign ourselves to remaining in Finland for the duration of the European War. It was not a very pleasant prospect to face. But we still hoped that the war which we had so often sought in vain might one day catch us up.
In the meantime we had to find work. Fortunately for us the Finns offered to take us on as full-time members of the Helsinki Fire Brigade. Their headquarters was already overcrowded, but sleeping accommodation on two-tiered bunks was found in the gymnasium for us and twenty firemen evacuated from Viipuri. Our room-mates were very sociable though the drone of their incessant chatter was maddening in the extreme. There was only one cause for friction between us – the question of fresh air. Finns are in the habit of sleeping the whole year round with their windows closed. This did not tally with our method of upbringing, and many a night we would lie prostrate with heat until we could stand it no longer. Then one of us would creep stealthily across the room and open a window. For a short while we could breathe again. Soon a shadowy form in combinations would steal across from the other side and, with a muffled grunt, close the window again.
Despite a few differences of opinion, the men were very kindly disposed towards us and were most sympathetic at the time of the Battle of Britain. One of our staunchest friends was the Deputy Chief Officer, Carl Aastrom. Tall, thick-set and about forty years of age, he spoke very good English, which he had learnt during a long stay in America. He did everything in his power to make us happy and comfortable in our job. On many of our leave days he invited us to his country cottage for ski-ing or, later on, fishing.
Life at the Helsinki Fire Station was a very pleasant change from the inactivity of an A.F.S. sub-station. Our time was better organised. The hours were the same as in London: forty-eight on and twenty-four off. On duty days working hours were from 9 a.m. until 5 o.m. Reveille was at 6.30 a.m. Room-cleaning had to be finished by 8 a.m. when breakfast, consisting of porridge and coffee, was available in the canteen. At 9 a.m. everyone had to parade in the station yard, roll-call was read and any orders of the day announced. On the appearance of the Chief Officer the assembled company would shout in chorus “Good morning sir,” or its equivalent in Finnish, which sounded like “Ho-o-o hup!” Then we were dismissed, and those who were on leave were free, the remainder forming up in the appliance-room alongside their appropriate machines for inspection. From 9 a.m. until 12 noon was spent in various workshops. Every man had his own trade, which made the station almost self-contained. A well fitted-out metal shop with oxy-acetylene welding plant and numerous first class lathes was responsible for turning out all the branches, couplings and nozzles, etc. A carpenter’s shop provided all wooden requirements, including interior coachwork for appliances. In addition there was an electrical workshop, a boot-making and repair detachment and a tailor’s shop at which all uniforms were made and cleaned and pressed after fires. All these workshops were within a stone’s throw of the appliance-room which made possible a very speedy turn-out if the bells went down. During our stay in the fire station we had ample opportunity of learning all these trades.